A Yale Law grad on law school, the Constitution, and whether you should really get that J.D. (Part II)

Nick Pederson is a graduate of Yale Law School. He was gracious enough to answer some of Knewton LSAT Prep’s questions about law school, the legal field, and his current work. (Miss Part I of the interview? Check it out here.)

Some students reading this blog are particularly interested in obtaining a J.D and not practicing law. What kind of opportunities exist for this type of work? Would you recommend pursuing this path?

I think that, as a general matter, students who already know they don’t want to be practicing law in the long term should think very long and very hard about whether it makes sense to go to law school at all. Much of this is because getting a law degree has become a financially risky venture. But this soul-searching is especially necessary for people who don’t even want to be lawyers. People say, of course, that you can do anything with a law degree… the truth, I think, is more complicated… It is easy to enter law school repeating the “I can do anything with this!” mantra — many students do it every year. Soon, however, you realize you are very deep in debt. And soon after that, you realize that the only way to pay off that debt, unless you can land a job at a consulting firm, is to work at a law firm for a while… So now you’ve spent three years studying law, and three years paying off your debt — that’s six years — all in preparation for entering the sector you actually want to be in, which you still haven’t set foot in. So the real question you should be asking yourself is: Why does it make sense for me to spend such whopping sums of money — and at least six years of my life — getting and paying for a degree that will will teach me how to be a lawyer (which I do not want to be), instead of simply entering the profession I want to enter now? Before you take this enormously costly and often painful detour to reach your final destination, in other words, make sure that there is a strong, concrete reason for you to take it.

In your opinion, what kind of person makes a good lawyer? What sort of pre-law-school factors are good predictors of whether someone will last or is suitable for the profession?

There are many different kinds of law, and thus many different kinds of good lawyers. As a general matter, good lawyers are very smart (legal work is difficult)… Generally though I think it is a mistake to think of this in terms of “factors” or “characteristics” that cut a person out for law. You could easily take two people with nearly identical characteristics and find that one hates law and the other loves it. The only way to get a real sense of whether you’re cut out to enjoy life as a lawyer, I think, is for you to actually research it yourself…  Here are some ways to learn whether you’d like law: a) if you can, work with lawyers, and see what they do; b) talk to family friends who are lawyers, and really do a thorough play-by-play of the day-by-day stuff they do…; c) pick up a casebook or hornbook (or ideally both) from a standard law course, like Contracts, Torts, Criminal Law, etc. Do you find this stuff interesting or boring?…  If you go through the whole exercise and you find that all your answers are coming up boring, then law really might not be the right field for you… Basically, I think the question it boils down to is: are there lawyers I envy? Whose lives I would take if I could? If you can honestly say yes, and you are basing that answer on a thorough understanding of what these lawyers actually do, then you are probably the right kind of person to become an attorney.

If you could change something about law school, what would it be?

I would have them do a little more to help out their students graduating into this rough economy. One place to start would be tuition, which, over the past few decades, has gotten completely out of control… Given what’s happened to the legal market, I think tuition being charged is pretty indefensible. I’d love to see law schools tighten their belts and dig into their funds to help out current classes of students, the classes from 2009 onwards, who played by all the rules and saw their whole reason for coming to law school in the first place — the promise of a stable, well-paying job — evaporate.

What is the most surprising way you have used your J.D thus far?

Hmmm… I’m pretty sure it’s helped me get a date or two. Does that count?

Is it true that law school changes your mind and the way you think?

Yeah, I think that’s true to a limited extent. It doesn’t change the way you think about stuff that really matters in life — love, death, meaning, etc. What it does affect, for many of us I think, is the way you approach arguments. Arguments are everywhere, of course: in political speeches, in advertisements, in the nonfiction prose you read in newspapers and textbooks. Law students are trained to sniff out weak arguments and rip them to shreds, and most of us get pretty good at it. Once you can do this, the astonishing thing is how often you encounter ridiculously weak arguments everywhere — including in places you’d really hope not to find them, like Supreme Court opinions.

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